“Raising honey bees to save pollinators is like raising chickens to help birds.” We need to think of how to save the wild bees.
Honey bees are only 1 of 20,000 species of bees in the world. They are native to Europe, Africa, and Asia, but have been brought all over the world for pollination of our food crops. We rely on them for one out of every three bites of food we eat.
Honey bees face significant challenges. The three main offending factors include habitat loss for agriculture, pesticides, and disease. Having a backyard honey bee hive is not going to remedy any of these factors. Systemic changes to our agricultural system are needed to improve things for bees.
However, honey bees are not going to disappear. There are many scientists and dollars at work to prevent that from happening.
The bees that are in danger of extinction are the other 20,000 species of wild bees. Consisting of bumblebees, mason bees, and thousands of other species, wild bees are the unsung heroes of our world, holding entire ecosystems together with their pollination services.
Wild bees are also integral pollinators for some food crops, such as coffee. Over time some native bee species have developed specialist pollination partnerships with certain plants. Other types of bees cannot pollinate these plants at all, or as thoroughly as their specialist bees can. Without pollination, many plants may not be able to reproduce and feed the animals that rely on them. This could cause entire ecosystems to collapse, ultimately affecting humans.
Competing with Honey Bees
Wild bees face the same threats as honey bees, but with much fewer resources dedicated to their survival. Not much is known about wild bee populations, how fast they are declining, or how drastic the impacts could be. Honey bees may exacerbate the problem by outcompeting wild bee populations for food and transmitting diseases, threatening their numbers.
Honey Bees are the Gateway Bug
While a backyard honey bee hive will not help honey bees or wild bees, keeping honey bees is valuable for other reasons. Honey, pollen, beeswax and insight into the operations of a complex superorganism are all worthy ends to pursue.
Honey bees are a gateway bug, introducing new beekeepers to the world of wild bees and pollinator-friendly farm and garden practices. Honey bees should be kept for these reasons, not to “save the bees”.
What Will Help Save Bees?
Plant Native Flowers
One of the greatest actions people can do for wild bees is planting flowers, especially to mitigate the negative impacts of honey bee hives on wild bees. Native flowers are best for native bees, so seek out flowering plants that are native to the specific region.
Avoid pesticides of all kinds when gardening or landscaping, and leave weeds to flower in lawns.
Let Them Nest to save wild bees
Providing nesting sites can also help fight the effects of habitat loss. Different types of bees nest in different habitats, so provide a diversity of nesting materials. Mason bee houses, patches of bare soil for gentle ground nesting bees, old wood with beetle tunnels, and piles of branches make great habitat for a diversity of species.
Pollinator hotels are another way to provide nesting habitat.